Unleash the hounds. Arizona State basketball is back to full strength.
Herb Sendek moves three key players from the bench onto the floor this season as Jahii Carson, Evan Gordon, and Bo Barnes get ready to help the Sun Devils recover from a disastrous 2011.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that many guys practicing with us, but not able to play,” said the seventh-year head coach in an interview during the off-season. “I don’t think we’ve ever been in a position where we’ve had three players that were with us every day in practice, but on game day weren’t able to compete.
“But that’s a real advantage moving forward because those guys got a feel for how we do things.”
Sendek and the rest of his new-look coaching staff joined with ASU fans in getting a sneak preview to see if that down time actually helped the trio, and at what lies ahead for the season when the team held an open scrimmage and autograph session Saturday.
The squad played three 10-minute periods, during which Sendek and his staff – which includes a couple of new additions with considerable experience in the NBA – got a chance to see whether his new up-tempo style of play is going to be able to break a string of two straight losing seasons.
It was also the long-awaited debut of the slash-and-dash point guard from nearby Mesa High School who will be leading the new offensive system. Carson is moving from the sidelines, where he spent last season on the bench after failing to get NCAA qualification in time to play in the 2011-12 season.
The redshirt freshman point guard scored 18 points in the scrimmage, playing at times for both the Gold and Maroon teams in a game that ended with a 47-33 Maroon victory. Carrick Felix, the junior wing that scored 23 points in last season’s upset of in-state rival Arizona, dropped in nine points, as did Gordon, the shooting-guard transfer from Liberty University.
Jordan Bachynski, the 7-foot junior center who returns from last year, previewed his upcoming work in the paint by leading all players with seven rebounds.
Gordon, the brother of NBA shooting guard Eric Gordon, joins with Carson and Barnes, a 6’4″ wing that played his freshman season at the University of Hawaii, in finally getting a crack at working into the starting line-up.
All three are expected to play significant roles this season, after spending a year participating in practices, but not being able to get on the floor for games.
“They had a year to develop and improve, and they’re really good players,” Sendek points out. “And I think it’s just exciting to me to think about our team…when they’re actually able to play on game day.”
Gordon is expected to provide some much-needed scoring help since last year’s top scorer, Trent Lockett, left the program and transferred to Marquette for one final season to be closer to home, where his mother was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma.
Lockett, who was the third player to leave the team after the season ended, was a huge hit to the program. He not only led the team in scoring with 13 points per game, but also in rebounding (5.8 per game) and steals (37) on the defensive end.
Gordon brings experience to Tempe, having played in 31 games for the Flames, starting in 25. The 6’3″ guard scored in double figures in 19 of those games and led the team in field goals made (129) and was second in scoring, averaging 12 points a game. On the defensive end, he was second on the team in steals with 34.
Barnes also saw a lot of important court time, playing in all 32 games at Hawaii and made more three-point field goals than any freshman in school history. That year, he finished second in three-pointers made (57) and percentage (.388) and then averaged 14.4 points a game in his sophomore year before transferring to ASU. His 832 points in just two years ranks him 26th on Hawaii’s all-time scoring list.
Like Carson, he’s also a local kid. Barnes led Scottsdale Christian Academy to a 28-3 record as a senior, when he averaged 19 points a game and shot 60 percent from the field.
But it will be all eyes on Carson this season, in part because he was the jewel of the 2011 recruiting class and the most talked-about Sendek acquisition since James Harden, who is now having great success in the NBA. Carson was the No. 10 prep prospect in the country at his position.
In addition, he is a local favorite from Mesa High and has generated a lot of interest for the program on that criteria alone. He set single-season scoring and assists records at Mesa in both his junior and senior seasons, took the team to the state semifinals that year, and scored 58 points in that final career game – earning him the Arizona Republic Big School Player of the Year award.
On top of all that, he’s an exciting player to watch. He’s the reason ASU will be able to push the ball up the floor and play a fan-pleasing style of up-tempo basketball. He has great court vision, which enables him to make precision passes in both the open and half court.
And his quickness, athleticism, and leaping ability challenges defenders who will have an advantage over the 5’10” 20-year-old. Legend has it that he jammed home his first dunk when he was just 13 years old – and 5’3″ tall.
In addition to having more talent on the floor this season, Sendek also was forced to add some new talent to his coaching staff when he lost two assistants that moved on to take jobs elsewhere. Instead of combing the college ranks, Sendek added Eric Musselman, who has been a head coach for a couple of NBA teams and an assistant on three other NBA staffs, and Larry Greer, an NBA scout who has coached seven years in the NBA and most recently was the assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They will join Sendek and Dedrique Taylor, the associate head coach who has been with Sendek from the first day he arrived in Tempe.
If everything that appears promising right now comes together in time for this season, it could mean a return to the days when Sendek enjoyed three straight 20-win seasons shortly after he arrived from North Carolina State and was named the 2010 Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
It would be hard not improve on the last two seasons, when the team went 12-19 in 2010-11 and Sendek used 11 different line-ups trying to find an answer to the fall-off… or last season when he put 12 different line-ups out there, but still finished with just 10 wins.
Those teams lacked a true point guard that could run the offense and provide leadership on the floor. The Devils have that now in the whiz kid from Mesa with the interesting first name.
In all likelihood, Carson has one other assignment this season: help save his head coach’s job.
Sendek signed an extension to his contract last year, which will carry through to 2016. But we all know how binding a contract becomes in college sports when the head coach stops putting together winning seasons.
Dennis Erickson also started with a conference Coach of the Year award, but then posted three football seasons without a winning record.
And then ASU handed the football over to Todd Graham.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)